This CEO says her riskiest career move was becoming an engineer

Before Girls Who Code was a thing.
Before Girls Who Code was a thing.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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In the US, where only 11% of working engineers are women and fewer than 5% of the CEOs of the 500 biggest companies are female, Jennifer Van Buskirk, the president of Cricket Wireless, a subsidiary of AT&T, is something of a freak. In a good way.

Van Buskirk, 42, chose a course of study that many thought was then “risky” for a woman—becoming an engineer. In 1991, when she entered Virginia Tech, she says women and minorities comprised only 15% of engineering students (pdf) nationwide and were much less likely than men to be employed in engineering once they did graduate.

“I was definitely not taking the easy route,” Van Buskirk told Quartz. “I was typically one of the only women in my college classes and often had to work harder than my male counterparts to be heard.”

She says she found the experience exhilarating. “I really liked breaking the mold and challenging the stereotypes about women. Probably because I was confident in my analytical skills and my ability to learn and adapt, so no matter what obstacles were thrown my way, I knew I could figure a way around them.”

In her approach to her education and prospective career, Van Buskirk intuitively understood two critical components of successful risk-taking. She embraced what Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth” mind-set, which is a belief in one’s ability to learn, change, and handle challenges. The other attribute is what University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, calls “grit,” which is “the sustained and focused application of talent over time.”

When AT&T acquired Cricket from Leap Wireless in 2013 the company was losing about a million subscribers a year, but under Van Buskirk’s leadership, it now boasts 5 million subscribers. What she considers her greatest risk, taking a job she knew nothing about, has proven to be worth taking.

I asked Van Buskirk about how she’s navigated professional risk and here’s what she said.

Van Buskirk:

“I’ve taken a lot of perceived risks in my career.

In fact, that sense of confidence, which was formed in me at an early age, has been the lynchpin of my career success. It has enabled me to embrace risk and leverage it versus run from it. In 2005, I put that confidence to the test when I responded to a request from Ralph de la Vega, our current head of Mobility & Business Solutions at AT&T. Back then, Ralph wanted me to interview for his chief of staff role. While this probably doesn’t sound like a very risky move—especially when you compare it to starting Aio Wireless or Cricket Wireless–it sure felt like it—for two reasons.

Reason number one: I knew nothing about the job—literally, zero. And reason number two: I was seven months pregnant at the time.

I was pretty certain I could learn the role, but I remember looking at my pregnant belly and saying to myself, ‘I’m never going to get this job – who would hire me like this?’ And even if I did get hired, would it be career-suicide to jump into a demanding, high profile, new role just to step out to give birth, then jump back in? How much pressure would I be putting on my family and myself in order to make all this work?

And, of course, there were the inevitable skeptics who echoed those doubts. But I realized there’s never a perfect time for anything—you just have go for it and keep your eyes on your goal. And my goal was to be a leader and, as such, do something impactful for the company.

I ended up getting the chief of staff job, which led to other roles within AT&T, which, eventually, brought me to where I am today, president of Cricket Wireless. By staying confident and believing in myself and my capabilities; by ensuring that I don’t let others define me; and by embracing change instead of avoiding it, I’ve been able to chart my own course. And that course has included leading Cricket Wireless—one of the most successful consumer brands in the wireless industry.

I’ve taken what many perceive as big risks in my career, but I’ve always viewed them as opportunities. I’ve tackled challenges head-on and I’ve learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I think that’s the key: don’t let perception become reality. If you look for the opportunity, you can always mitigate the risk.”